Rare Earth Elements (REE)
According to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, rare earth minerals are a group of seventeen chemical elements in the periodic table, specifically the fifteen lanthanides, as well as scandium and yttrium. This article provides a brief overview of India’s vast reserves of rare earth minerals, as well as the strategic importance of rare earth minerals in areas ranging from defence to energy that is helpful for the UPSC exam.
Rare Earth Elements are not always as “rare” as the name suggests. These metals are extremely difficult to mine since they are rarely found in concentrations high enough to be economically extracted. Thulium and lutetium are the two rare earth elements with the lowest abundance. Cerium, yttrium, lanthanum, and neodymium are the most plentiful rare earth elements.
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What are Rare Earth Metals?
Rare Earth Metals consist of seventeen different metallic elements. These comprise the fifteen lanthanides listed on the periodic table, as well as scandium and yttrium, which resemble the lanthanides in terms of their physical and chemical characteristics.
The seventeen rare earth elements are cerium (Ce), dysprosium (Dy), erbium (Er), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), holmium (Ho), lanthanum (La), lutetium (Lu), neodymium (Nd), praseodymium (Pr), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), scandium (Sc), terbium (Y).
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Rare Earth Metals Properties
- These minerals are employed in a wide range of contemporary technologies, including consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, health care, national defence, and clean energy technologies, because of their distinctive magnetic, luminescent, and electrochemical properties.
- Even futuristic technologies require these REEs.
- High-temperature superconductivity, for example, or safe hydrogen storage and transport for a post-hydrocarbon economy, are examples. They were given the name “rare earth” because it was previously difficult to extract them technologically from their oxide forms.
- Numerous minerals contain them, although in insufficient quantities for commercial refinement.
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Rare Earth Minerals Reserves
Major rare earth minerals found in India are Ilmenite, sillimanite, garnet, zircon, monazite, and rutile. These minerals are collectively known as Beach sand minerals (BSM). The fifth-largest reserves of rare earth minerals are found in India. Due to the radioactivity of monazite sands, Indian Rare Earths Ltd is the sole producer of rare earth compounds under the Department of Atomic Energy. Globally, China has a monopoly on rare earth, following the United States’ withdrawal from this industry due to high environmental and health concerns. China once nearly paralysed the Japanese economy by suspending the export of rare earth elements. India also has critical rare earth minerals like zirconium, neodymium, and others, which are abundant in monazite sands. If used correctly, this could help Indian export markets.
However, the production of rare earth minerals has depleted over time due to a variety of factors such as cost reduction due to high production (economies of scale) in China, a lack of demand in the domestic market, and a lack of domestic processing technologies. The majority of products containing rare earth minerals as raw materials are imported. Despite the fact that rare earth minerals have a high value and add the potential for export growth, India has suffered due to inadequate processing technologies.
Read More: Minerals
List of Rare Earth Elements and their Applications
|Rare Earth Element||Present Applications|
|Yttrium||Used as a Phosphors Liquid Crystal Displays, ceramics, metal alloys|
|Lanthanum||Batteries, catalysts for petroleum refining|
|Cerium||Autocatalysts, Chemical Catalyst, glass polishing, metal alloys|
|Praseodymium||High-power magnets, yellow ceramic pigment|
|Neodymium||High power magnets|
|Promethium||Beta radiation source|
|Gadolinium||Magnetic resonance imaging contrast agent, nuclear reactor rods|
|Terbium||Phosphors for lighting, high power high-temperature magnets|
|Dysprosium||High power high-temperature magnets, lasers|
|Holmium||Highest power magnets in existence|
|Erbium||Lasers, glass colorant|
|Thulium||Ceramic magnetic materials which are still under development|
|Ytterbium||Fibre optic technology, solar panels|
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Rare Earth Elements Trade and Production
China has one-third of the world’s known rare earth element reserves. It controls 90% of the worldwide REE market. China has gradually gained global dominance in rare earth, and at one point produced 90% of the rare earth required by the world. However, it has now dropped to 60%, with the remainder produced by other countries, including the Quad (Australia, India, Japan and the United States).
Production facilities had formed in Australia and the United States, as well as smaller facilities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, since 2010, when China banned shipments of Rare Earth to Japan, the United States, and Europe. However, China is the country with the most processed Rare Earth.
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Rare Earth Elements Significance
- Rare earth materials are used in a wide variety of critical products, allowing many emerging green energy technologies, high-tech applications, and defence systems to function.
- They’re found in consumer goods like smartphones, computer screens, and telescopic lenses.
- They use clean energy, which is essential in today’s world.
- Traditional applications include cerium for glass polishing and lanthanum for automotive catalysts or optical lenses.
- Rare earth minerals, such as neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium, are critical in the production of magnets used in industries such as electric vehicles, wind turbines, and drones in the twenty-first century.
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Rare Earth Elements UPSC
Metals and non-metals that are regarded as critical for a country’s economic growth are known as essential minerals. Rare earth elements, such as gallium, manganese, aluminium, chromium, cobalt, and nickel, are found in important minerals. These minerals are essential for the rising high-tech industry. They play a critical role in the creation of a product. The economy and national security would suffer significantly without these minerals.
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